Friday, May 31, 2024

The Verdict


The world waited (with varying degrees of interest, anticipation, and worry) as the jury of Trump's fellow New Yorkers deliberated for two days (actually 11 hours). The verdict is now in: Guilty on all 34 Counts. The trial of the century (or, at least, of this election cycle) is now over (although, of course, the verdict will almost certainly be appealed, both judicially and in the court of public opinion). To whatever extent the facts (as opposed to the law, about which there may be more debate) were ever really in dispute, the former President has now been formally convicted of unlawfully behaving in the 2016 campaign in regard to his "hush money" payments to Stormy Daniels and the accompanying "catch and kill" scheme. Whether the law is right in so regarding these offenses remains a somewhat open question, to be settled presumably by the Appellate Court.

Defendant Trump - now Convict Trump - called it "a rigged disgraceful trial" and said "the real verdict" will come on Election Day, November 5. In a formal, legal sense, of course that is nonsense. Unless set aside on appeal, the verdict of the jury is the verdict. the fact of the case have been established beyond reasonable doubt. Defendant Trump is indeed now Convict Trump. But, of course, in a political sense, he is right. The final verdict, the verdict that will matter most, will be the one which the voters hand down on Election Day.

The apocalypse has not happened. A single prosecution of one former President, who is also a current candidate, does not, ipso facto, make the U.S, a "banana republic," as some have feared and about which all of us should be worried. Meanwhile, the hysterical outbursts on the political right, while regrettable in a law-governed democratic polity, are utterly unsurprising in their disregard of any principle other than partisan victory. On the other hand, Progressives probably would be well advised to tamp down their "rule-of-law" triumphalism. In Wednesday's NY Times, in a column entitled "There’s a Reason Most People Aren’t Following the Trump Trial," Matthew Walter, editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal, wrote:

"Pretending that Mr. Trump’s worthiness to serve a second term is a matter of criminal law rather than a political question is typical of our American insistence upon using certain tools (judicial originalism, democracy promotion, tax credits) for purposes to which they are fundamentally unsuited (outlawing abortion, defeating Islamic terrorism, increasing the birthrate). Most of the time we misuse these tools in the hope of addressing problems that do not admit of any easy or obvious solution." Mr. Walther continued: "The question of Mr. Trump’s fitness to serve as our commander in chief is one that voters are readily able to answer."

I don't know that I have ever read The Lamp, nor am I at all familiar with Matthew Walther's other work, so I can only infer his position on Trump's past presidency or current candidacy.  That said, the author's conclusion seems irrefutable. After all, nothing new has really been revealed about the shameless ex-president's personality or character. And, of course, in an earlier and better time, we would likely have never gotten to this point, because anyone who behaved as Trump has behaved would never have gotten near the White House. But that was then, and this is now. When all is said and done, Donald Trump's fitness for the presidency (and his party's fitness for governance) will ultimately only be finally resolved by the electoral, not the judicial, process. Until such time as convict Trump is decisively defeated, he remains a serious danger to our country.

The important point is not Trump's personal failings and bad behavior. The important point is that he is the leader of a Republican party personality cult masquerading as a political movement that represents a fundamental threat to democracy, the rule of law, and the American idea.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Civic Bargain (the Book)


Somehow I missed this very important book, when it came out last year: Brook Manville and Josiah Ober, The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives (Princeton University Press, 2023). As the title suggests, it is a work about establishing and maintaining a consensus-based democracy. A successful democracy of this sort is sustained by what the authors call "a grand civic bargain," which "is a negotiated agreement among citizens about the terms of their collective self-governance, enabled by practices of civic friendship and supported by civic education. It is achieved through a history of predemocratic political bargains. And it si sustianed over time by ongoing, incremental bargaining."

As the title suggests, this is not a political theory of moral absolutes - e.g., like universal human rights. "For a democracy to work, all must accept getting less than they desire. All must subordinate certain of their personal or subgroup interests to the good of the whole." The opposite of value absolutism, "bargaining will fail if the parties come to the bargaining table inflexibly committed to rejecting any agreement that does not fully instantiate their own conception of what a perfectly just (or happy, pious, or moral) outcome would be."

The authors also recognize the salience of who is or is not a participant in the bargain. "When the citizen body is increased, the capacity of the community is increased: more human capital is available in the form of more information, knowledge, and experience." On the other hand, "expanding the citizen body means more and more diverse members at the bargaining table. And that means that there may be more and different issues on the table."

The authors apply their theories to four familiar historical cases: "the four greatest democratic experiments in Western history," four "long-duration cases," which they consider "especially valuable for understanding democracy as collective self-government by citizens." The four are ancient Athens ("The Bargain That Invented the Power of the Citizenry"), republican Rome ("The Compromises That Created the First Great Republic"), England and then Britain ("The Royal Bargains That Made Parliament Sovereign"), and finally the U.S. ("Painful Compromises in Search of a More Perfect Union"). The historical analyses of each of these cases is too long and detailed to be effectively recapped here. Suffice it to say that the authors demonstrate how in each case, "citizens struggled with the challenges of scale, and struck bargains to face those challenges." Also, "in each case, the historical trajectory ending in democracy featured political bargains made long in advance of the civic bargain," bargains which granted or established citizens' rights and responsibilities. In all cases, "democracy is hard to get, not easy to keep, and never finished: democratic emergence and survival is never a sure thing." 

Indeed, the two ancient cases offer valuable lessons in how and why democracy was no longer sustainable and so ended in each instance. Their account of the long history of the development of British democracy highlights the many stages along the way, the many political bargains preliminary to the final early 20th-century civic bargain that made Britain the successful democracy we are familiar with. 

In the U.S case, the authors emphasize the early colonial experience in local self-government. "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, civic rights, including the right to vote for local representatives, were more widely distributed in the English colonies in the New World than anywhere in Europe." The founders were well versed in the history of the ancient democratic experiments, which had taught them that "self-interest could be tempered by the active promotion of civic virtue. Formal institutions and civic education could help build strong norms of public-spirited commitment to seeking the common good, a passionate love of country, and a consequent willingness to sacrifice when necessary."

The political bargain between the colonists and the Mother Country having broken down, the first attempt at an American civic bargain, the Articles of Confederation, also failed. The process that led to the ratification of the new constitution became "a preeminent example of self-conscious civic education." That constitution required compromise between free states and slave states: "ratification of the bargain would fail if the Philadelphia delegates did not compromise with what some of them already recognized as an inherent evil." The new country continued to scale up in size, and organized political parties developed to structure political debates and outcomes. The Jacksonian era made the U.S. more democratic, but not more liberal. With the Civil War, the imperfect civic bargain collapsed. "The founders had depended on the bonds of civic friendship along with the common interest in security and welfare to hold together a union in which regional interests diverged and passions ran high. But fellow citizens now saw one another as deadly enemies." The post-Civil War civic bargain failed until the mid-20th-century in its initial goal to fully incorporate freed slaves, but was much more successful "in building civic friendship among ethnically diverse residents." Recent conflicts, however, have highlighted how "the basic question of 'who actually has a place at the civic table' has not been fully resolved." The present question is whether the American civic bargain can "be renegotiated int he face of a toxic mix of misinformation, ideological rigidity, and the threat and fact of resort to violence. Is civic friendship again being replaced  by the fatal enmity that led to the Civil War? What civic education might shore up the civic bargain and enable democracy to survive?" The last part of the book attempts to answer those questions.

The authors repeatedly stress the difference between "democracy as self-government by a self-defined body of citizens," which is the achievable goal, and some alternative "just regime predicated on an egalitarian principle of distribution or full array of universal human rights." The goal is citizens ruling themselves "through managing benefits and costs, dividing both the moral and material payoffs of their political cooperation and the duties, including military service and the payment of taxes" - doing so in a way regarded "for the time being, as fair enough." Such a civic bargain is "never final and must always be open to revision."

Among the lessons learned from studying the four cases are the necessity of leadership and "the requirement of periodically rethinking what democracy requires of individuals and groups, and what it offers to them." There is also the warning concerning "unproductive absolutism" concerning the ends to be sought, frequently experienced today, and "hyperpolarized partisanship aimed at winning, when winning is defined as destroying our enemies on the other side." The important point is that, despite contrary claims, we never really all want the same things. Democracy is about "finding workable compromises so that as citizens we can move forward together." Hence, the authors' repeated emphasis on civic education which "forges vital bonds of knowledge, values, and behaviors on which shared membership in the ongoing project of self-government stands or falls."

Unlike, for example, Robert Kagan's ideology of  rights individualism, or Progressive wokeism, Catholic integralism, or any other extremely polarizing absolutism, these authors' proposals probably require more effort on the part of all, since they acknowledge as acceptable the fact that we do not all agree on the same values or want the same ultimate outcomes and so need to negotiate a genuinely political way to live and make a future together. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Liberalism vs. Antiliberalism


Brookings Fellow and Washington Post editor-at-large Robert Kagan, has written a short but important and timely book, Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing American Apart - Again (Knopf, 2024). Kagan does not accept the classic Luis Hartz thesis about the exclusive ubiquity of American liberalism. On the contrary, he considers liberalism (by which he means a Lockean preoccupation with individual rights) and illiberalism as having coexisted an opposed each other throughout American history. Largely an historical study, Rebellion is nevertheless focused very much on the present. Kagan considers the 2024 election "a referendum on whether the liberal democracy born out of the Revolution should continue." While he recognizes that Trump himself is probably unique, "Trump's movement is not unique." That movement is part of the ongoing competition between Lockean liberalism and what he calls illiberalism, that has dominated American history from the beginning.

Contrary to what Kagan considers "one of liberalism's great weaknesses" (namely, "the belief inits own inevitability"), he believes liberalism has been a uniquely American creation, that "grew out of a confluence of unique ideas about the nature of government, a unique interaction of political and international events, and a unique place, North America." Kagan acknowledges, even celebrates what many may regard as liberalism's greatest moral failing. His liberalism "has no teleology, no final resting place toward which it aims." Rather, it is a theory of "universal natural rights," which inhere in the individual. He recognizes the American Revolution's debt to Locke, but not to the traditional Whiggish notion of th British constitution. Nor does he acknowledge more communitarian value systems, such as civic republicanism and religion, which many would argue have played a comparably positive role in American history and even now can serve as correctives to liberalism's obsessive preoccupation with individual rights.

A majority of pre-revolutionary American colonists, Kagan acknowledges, "did not believe in universal rights," and anti-liberal traditions would therefore persist as rivals to liberalism. "Yet the revolutionary and founding generations, with their unusually intense obsession with their individual rights, ensured that the question of individual rights and how best to protect them would be the central issue of American politics for the rest of the life of the republic." I doubt anyone would disagree with that, although many might look for communitarian antidotes to the rights individualism Kagan extols.

Kagan's historical narrative does an excellent job of telling the American story in a way which honors liberal rights individualism, while never underestimating the challenges to it from illiberal currents, primarily in connection with slavery and consequently race. He is especially insightful in how "suspicion of strong government that shaped the contours of the new republic became entangled with the slaveholders' demands to limit the federal government's ability to intrude in their affairs." His account of the divisions that led to the Civil War and the political conflicts of subsequent periods in American history is an excellent summation of how we got to where we are now at our present, highly fraught political moment.

Kagan also admits that "the founding generation believed religion was an important adjunct for the maintenance of a healthy, virtuous society." He recognizes that "a surge of religious revivalism" stirred up a host of reform movements, above all, abolitionism. But he insists such religious movements were "inspired by secular liberal principles." One wonders whether it is rather the reverse, that the religiously motivated reform movements, having succeeded, have since been transformed into secular liberal principles. That said, he recognizes the illiberalism inherent in the strong anti-Catholic strain in American culture and politics throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, and ranks "virulent anti-Catholicism" as "a close second" to slavery and racism as a challenge to the liberal ideal. And in the anti-immigrant politics of the early 20th century, he recognizes "a loss of confidence about the American powers of assimilation and absorption" that "was part of a larger loss of faith in liberalism itself." In fact, he considers the 1920s to be "a high-water mark of antiliberalism, the highest until now." He considers the 1920 election "more like the 2016 election of Trump than any other American election."

In his discussion of the New Deal, he admits that "the Catholic critique of liberal individualism temporarily meshed with popular views," and that the New Deal's "collective, government-centered" approach "was more in keeping with Catholic teachings than the 'rugged individualism' of unfettered capitalism." On the other hand, while he appreciates the fact that "the rights protection machine that the founders set in motion is destructive of many traditions, and that includes religious institutions," he seems serenely untroubled by that. Yet surely the socially catastrophic consequences of the melting of all that is solid (to employ Marx's image) cannot so cavalierly be dismissed because they are the concerns of illiberal ideologies! Kagan's seemingly single-minded focus on rights individualism as the single apparently ultimate value only highlights the inherent moral limits of rights individualism and the need to complement Lockean liberalism with traditional American antidotes, such as the tradition of civic republicanism.

That said, Kagan's analysis of our present highly polarized politics and the appeal of Donald Trump highlights the challenge our democracy faces for its very survival in the U.S. at this juncture. Some of his potential post-election scenarios may appear perhaps overly apocalyptic. But perhaps they are not! In any case, he displays a sharp understanding of the working of our political parties and of how Republicans accordingly "have a stake in the party's viability; all ultimately depend for their own viability on being roughly aligned with the party's positions; and so all had to make their peace with Trump, too."

Kagan's book is a well argued wake-up call in the cause of the preservation of a severely threatened liberalism. One only wishes he offered a morally broader and more communitarian foundation for society than Lockean liberal rights individualism. That is precisely what Manville and Ober offer in The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives (Princeton, 2023), about which I hope to write more later this week.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Memorial Day


It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:46).

Last week, while we were on retreat in New Jersey, my community took an evening (as is customary on such occasions) to remember and mourn, to celebrate and give thanks, for those who have gone before us. As people of faith, it is our joy to commend them to the mercy of God. As brothers-in-community who remember and miss them, it is our duty recall their lives with profound gratitude.

That, of course, is what we as a nation ostensibly do each year on Memorial Day, a day devoted to memory and gratitude for all who honorably served our country in life – especially those whose lives were tragically cut short by the perils unleashed by war. We have done this as a nation since the aftermath of the Civil War, a fratricidal conflict of apocalyptic proportions, which in many ways foreshadowed the catastrophic character of modern warfare which we would experience especially tragically in the 20th century and which parts of our world are experiencing even now in Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere.

I said “ostensibly,” because like so many civic observances, the “Memorial” in Memorial Day has atrophied along with so much of our national and communal life. (The loss of Memorial Day as an occasion for civic education and its turning into a day "for family picnics or to buy a new mattress on sale" is alluded to in an important recent book, The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives, which I will be writing more about later this week.)

Not only have the dead been forgotten by many, but many of us have lost touch even with the living, as our once characteristically American associational impulses have withered, and contemporary Americans seem more and more to have turned in upon themselves.

What was once a nation of joiners has become a nation of loners. What was once “a nation with the soul of a church” has become a nation of souls lost in the market. We seem rather lost this Memorial Day, a nation now more divided than at any time since the Civil War.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, highlighting the practice of visiting veterans' graves on this day. When I was a pastor in Tennessee, we used to celebrate Mass outdoors at the parish cemetery on Memorial Day, decorating the graves of all those buried there with our grateful prayers. It is a good and worthwhile thing to visit a cemetery on Memorial Day. Even more, this is a day to renew our civic sense of mutual commitment to one another - the living - who are our fellow citizens in this treasured but troubled land of ours.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Trinity Sunday

We began this Mass in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All of us who have been baptized were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. On that occasion, our parents and godparents – or we ourselves - made a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our sins have been forgiven in Confession, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who are married have exchanged wedding rings in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we have all repeatedly been blessed (and blessed ourselves) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In short, our entire lives, both as individuals and as a Church community, have been defined, formed, shaped by this awesome Trinitarian mystery of who God is, that defines God’s ongoing relationship with us and ours with God.

The doctrine of the Trinity is our uniquely Christian insight into who God is, our specifically Christian way of speaking about God, expressing what God has revealed about himself to us in Jesus his son through the activity of the Holy Spirit.  As human beings, created in God’s image and likeness, we all have a built-in, natural, longing for God. That God exists is something we can experience naturally.  We can reason our way, so to speak, to the existence of God as our Creator. But that is all we can reason our way to. The rest is revelation. Who God is - who God is in himself - is something we could never completely come to know on our own.  That had to be revealed to us by God himself, by God revealing himself to us in words and actions human history. And God has done so, revealing who he is in himself – one God in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three divine persons acting together externally in a way that reflect God’s inner trinitarian life, the Father acting through the Son in the Holy Spirit. In that inner trinitarian life, the three Persons are perpetually present to each other and inconceivable without each other. Externally, God has revealed in the incarnate Son, who has a visible face and has acted in human history, while the faceless Holy Spirit is known by the effects which we experience. 

So, on the one hand, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses our uniquely Christian insight into the ultimately incomprehensible inner life of God – where the Son is the image of the Father, the Father’s likeness and outward expression, who perfectly reflects his Father, while the Holy Spirit in turn expresses and reveals the mutual love of Father and Son. Each of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is truly God, each distinctly God, but existing eternally in relationship to each other: the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, the Holy Spirit to both. The very names Father, Son, Holy Spirit are relational names. By analogy, the titles “husband” and “wife” are names that are only understandable in terms of the relationships they signify.

At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself, how he acts toward us. Who God is in himself is how God acts. How God acts in human history reveals who God ultimately is. Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as Moses testified in today’s first reading - as one who repeatedly reveals himself in how he acts toward us.

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who for our salvation came down from heaven, and who, seated at the right hand of the Father, has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, making her the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Led by the Holy Spirit – as Saint Paul told the Christians in Rome and through them tells us - we become true sons and daughters of God the Father and joint heirs with Christ.

The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church. Thus, at Mass the Church petitions the Father to send the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine that they may become the body and blood of Christ and that, filled with the same Holy Spirit, we who receive Christ’s body and blood may then be transformed into one body in Christ, participants in the mission of his Church.

That mission is nothing less than to make disciples of all nations - in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, May 26, 2024.














Friday, May 24, 2024

The Last Time We Restricted Immigration


Sunday, May 26, will be the 100th anniversary of the Johnson–Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas on the number of immigrants, especially limiting immigration from southern and eastern Europe. It also authorized the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol and allowed entry to the U.S. only to those who first obtained a visa from an American consulate abroad. This infamous law banned immigration from Asia and capped the total annual immigration quota for the rest of the world at 165,000—an 80% reduction of the yearly average before 1914. Each European national group was limited by an annual quota, eventually based on each national group's share in the 1920 census. Revised somewhat by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, it was finally completely replaced by the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Prior to the 1920s, immigration from Europe had been relatively unrestricted. The Naturalization Act of 1790 had declared only people of European descent eligible for naturalization as U.S. citizens. (After the Civil War, eligibility was eventually extended to people of African descent in the Naturalization Act of 1870.) 

Meanwhile, my paternal grandparents were among the millions of Italians and other southern and eastern Europeans who came to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A bill to limit southern and eastern European immigration (e.g., Italians and Jews) had passed both houses of Congress in 1896, but it was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland. World War I led to some greater restrictions on immigration. In the increasingly isolationist and xenophobic  post-war period, the movement to restrict immigration increased in intensity.

Representative Albert Johnson (R-WA), a eugenics advocate, and Senator David Reed (R-PA) were the two main architects of the 1924 act, which found support among  nativist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and labor groups life the American Federation of Labor which wanted to reduce cheap immigrant labor that could compete with workers already here. Opposition was minimal. Only a handful of Senators and Representatives voted against it - most notably the Jewish freshman NY Representative Emmanuel Celler. He and Senator Philip Hart (D-MI) would have the honor of correcting that historic injustice by their successful co-sponsoring of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

My maternal grandparents first came to America in 1920, in the aftermath of the Great War, when anti-immigrant feeling was already on the rise. They settled in Manhattan's "Little Italy," and there my mother was born in 1922. For whatever reason, my grandparents and their younger children then returned to Italy, and my mother had happy memories of her early childhood years back in Catania. My grandmother, however, wanted to reunite the family and sought to return to America, which they were able to do because my mother was a natural-born American citizen. She was, in effect, what is nowadays called an "anchor baby," her American citizenship officially recognized by my grandmother's Kingdom-of-Italy Passport (photo), on which my mother was included.

The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 was a great injustice. It represented the temporary triumph of one of the more lamentable aspects of our American political tradition, which has, perhaps understandably at times, tried to make the U.S. into an ethno-national state (which in fact most nation-states naturally are, but which the U.S has never actually been). The contrary tradition, which sees American identity as primarily civic rather than ethnic, has long recognized that immigration's inevitably disrupting effects have been overwhelmingly outweighed by the benefits brought about by immigration - benefits both for the immigrants themselves and for the dynamism of American society.

The best that might be said for the immigration policy that was adopted 100 years ago is that, by temporarily reducing immigration, it created a kind of breathing space for assimilation and mutual acceptance to occur more easily. That may have accelerated the Americanization process for my parents's and grandparents' generations, fostering a degree of civic unity which would prove especially beneficial as American society struggled to cope with the strains of the Great Depression and the overwhelming challenge of fighting and winning the Second World War. The unique formative experiences of my "Boomer Generation" built upon that civic unity experienced by the victorious "Greatest Generation." 

The U.S. is certainly a more just society now than it was 100 years ago, and the repeal of the discriminatory quota system was one momentous measure of that evolving change. That said, the lesson of the past should serve as a vivid reminder that the inevitably disruptive aspects of absorbing a multitude of immigrants must be acknowledged and addressed - preferably by more just and inclusive policies than those adopted a century ago. The lesson of the past, which may be being replayed in the present, is that it is not an adequate response or politically satisfactory strategy simply to ignore the disruptive dimensions of large-scale immigration and pretend it isn't so.

The massive immigration of the 19th century was not always well received or popular, but there were few if any legal barriers to immigration then. American society was still open in ways it no longer is. (There was still a "frontier" until late in the century.) Catholic and jewish immigrants may not have been highly desired by those already here, but their labor was needed for America's expansion and economic development.  The situation is somewhat different now, and the U.S. feels a greater need to police its borders and regulate immigration. And yet the county is still very dependent upon immigrant labor. In fact, it could be argued that the present system which encourages massive illegal immigration meets those economic needs, but in a particularly perverse way by depriving workers who are undocumented of any protection against the employers who exploit their situation to get cheaper labor. Since cheaper labor also benefits consumers, it can be argued that consumers (that is, most U.S. residents) are also accomplices of a sort in the present unjust system.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Mother of the Church

Later this year will mark the 60th anniversary of Pope Saint Paul VI's brave action in adding Mother of the Church to the long list of the Blessed Virgin Mary's devotional titles. I call it "brave" deliberately, because - like so much else in the Church's life in those years - it got caught up in the factional politics of those turbulent times. The times are still turbulent (albeit in both similar and different ways) and the Church is still torn by factionalism, but Mary's title as Mother of the Church is well established devotionally, and this day, the Monday after Pentecost, has now been celebrated liturgically under that title since 2018.

Back in 1964, Yves Congar worried that "there is a connection at least temperamentally between the OVER-exaltation of Mary, and that of the Pope" (My Journal of the Council, November 12, 1964). Whether that is completely the case the way Congar imagined can be debated. As a factual matter, Mary has been exalted in the Church for centuries. Popes have been most especially over-exalted in the modern period - in part as a consequence of modern media of communication and travel which have made Popes and their pronouncements so much more accessible, in part because modern nationalism's threat to local Churches has required of the Church a strong universal center as a counterweight, and in part because of the contemporary cult of celebrity which attaches to successful leaders, religious no less than secular. Thus, the Church's government is more centralized than ever before. The Papacy, despite having long ago lost the Papal States it clung to so ferociously for so long, is more powerful spiritually than ever before. And the Pope is more of a world-wide celebrity than ever before. This celebrity mode has been especially evident in the recent papacies of Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis. That said, it still seems something of a stretch to suggest that Pope Francis' inauguration of today's liturgical celebration of Mary as Mother of the Church was, as Congar might have interpreted it, a "political" over-exaltation of either Mary or the Pope.

Mary is especially united with the Church in the mystery of Pentecost, which undoubtedly accounts for the celebration of Mary as Mother of the Church on Pentecost Monday.  "When the liturgy turns its gaze either to the primitive Church or to the Church of our own days it always finds Mary. In the primitive Church she is seen praying with the Apostles [cf. Acts 1:14]; in our own day she is actively present, and the Church desires to live the mystery of Christ with her." (Pope S. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, 11). 

In their 1973 Pastoral Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith, the U.S. Bishops devoted an entire chapter to Mary's role as Mother of the Church. "Her union with the risen Lord has added to Mary's motherhood of the Church a new effectiveness, as she shares in the everlasting intercession of our great High Priest "(116),

And, for all his earlier preoccupation with Mary's possible over-exaltation, Yves Congar himself elsewhere acknowledged "the deep bond that exists between the Virgin and the Spirit, and consequently of a certain common function despite the absolute disparity of the conditions." Specifically, he recognized "a deep relationship between Mary, the Mother of God, and the Holy Spirit... [which] derives from the mystery of salvation, the Christian mystery as such" (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, tr. David Smith, 2016 ed., Volume 1, pp, 163-164). Congar concluded his reflection on the special relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit by citing Paul VI's use of Saint Idelphonsus of Toledo's seventh-century, doctrinally powerful prayer of supplication: "I beg you, holy Virgin, that I may have Jesus from the Holy Spirit, by whom you brought Jesus forth. May my soul receive Jesus through the Holy Spirit by whom your flesh conceived Jesus ...  May I love Jesus in the Holy Spirit in whom you adore Jesus as Lord and gaze upon him as your Son" (Marialis Cultus, 26).

Mary's particular title Mother of the Church is not explicitly mentioned in the Bull of Indiction for the forthcoming Jubilee Year, recently promulgated by Pope Francis on the traditional date, Ascension Thursday. Yet, focused in a special way on the virtue of hope, that Bull, Spes Non Confundit, contains a section on how "Hope finds its supreme witness in the Mother of God." There, the Pope highlights how "popular piety continues to invoke the Blessed Virgin as Stella Maris, a title that bespeaks the sure hope that, amid the tempests of this life, the Mother of God comes to our aid, sustains us and encourages us to persevere in hope and trust," and the Pope encourages "all pilgrims to Rome to spend time in prayer in the Marian shrines of the City, in order to venerate the Blessed Mother and to implore her protection." In this regard, the Pope's personal special fondness for the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore among Rome's four patriarchal basilicas (and Jubilee pilgrimage sites) is well known.

Photo: Altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary adorned with May Crown, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY. The altar was designed by the famous Gilded Age architect Stanford White.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Unsettled Questions

As Americans struggle through the psychodrama of yet another apocalyptically framed presidential election, it is striking how, while (as usual) superficialities dominate the campaign, the most fundamental questions of American democracy remain unsettled and so are, in some sense, still at issue. In 2024, just shy of 250 years old as a country, the U.S. still cannot come to consensus regarding the most basic questions of modern democratic life, questions which have been at issue since the founding. Such questions include: Who should rule, the majority or the minority? How democratic or oligarchic should our American form of government be? How centralized or localized? How ethnically defined or civically defined should American society be? How religious or secular should society be?

None of these issues are new. Thanks to their classical education, the framers of the Constitution were wary of democracy, which they associated with "mob rule," a degenerate form of government oriented not to the common good but to the interests of the multitude of poor. There were also authentic democratic and radically egalitarian forces present in the British North American colonies, and they also were at work in the revolutionary era. The framers for the most part were men of property, however, whose class interests coincided with their classical education's concerns about the dangers of the excesses of democracy. Hence, their attraction to a "mixed constitution," as modeled philosophically by Aristotle's and Polybius' reflections on the merits of a "mixed constitution," and by early modern republican theory. Thus, the constitution the framers created reflected their understandable and likely laudable preference for a "mixed constitution," adapted to the novel circumstances of what by 18th-century standards was a very large territory - too large for anything resembling direct democracy.

The very large size of the new republic also contributed to the creation of the electoral college, since direct popular election of the president was also deemed impractical, as well as philosophically undesirable. That said, the intentionally anti-democratic electoral college has never really functioned as the pseudo-aristocratic body founders seem to have hoped for. Once a functioning political party system was in place, the practical problem of the country's size was overcome, and the electoral college became in effect a quasi-democratic institution, in that the electors in each state increasingly came to be popularly elected and the vehicles for mechanically registering the result of the popular vote. However, the almost universal practice of electing presidential electors at-large in each state has resulted over time in an increasing distortion of the popular will. Like the Senate, whose principle of state equality is inherently anti-democratic, the growth of the U.S. population, its concentration in urban areas, and the increasing partisan polarization between the underrepresented urban areas and the overrepresented rural areas has resulted in a distortion in representation far in excess of the inevitable distortion in representation which was the case at the founding and for much of American history. 

Thus, the anti-majoritarian bias of our national institutions as designed by the constitution has been aggravated in the case of the electoral college and the Senate, even as American culture has evolved ideologically in a more democratic and egalitarian direction. Likewise, the inherently anti-democratic and anti-majoritarian character of the federal judiciary has been exacerbated by the increase in the judiciary's power and in particular by the arrogation of supreme power by the Supreme Court and the contemporary failure of Congress to limit the Court's jurisdiction or alter the number of justices as Congress routinely used to do in the 19th-century.

Closely connected with our ongoing irresolution regarding majority vs. minority rule and democratic vs. oligarchic rule has been our ongoing struggle to modernize our archaic federal system. Like slavery, which the founders had little choice but to accept in order for the pro-slavery states to join the union, the continued existence and semi-sovereign power within the federal union was unfortunately accepted as a given for the framers. More than 200 year later, however, we are still saddled with an unsatisfactory division of political power between the federal government and the states and a constant tug-of-war between the inevitably growing, centralizing power of the federal government as a democratic majoritarian response to modern life and contemporary needs and the anti-democratic, anti-majoritarian state institutions which historically have hindered the effectiveness of the federal government, most extremely in the form of secession and "states' rights."

Although less of an institutional constitutional conundrum, the tension between an ethnically or racially based national identity and a non-ethnic, non-racial, pluralistic civic identity has likewise long remained unresolved. The idealized image of a pluralistic "nation of immigrants," whether described as a "melting pot" or as a more pluralistic, multi-cultural "mosaic," has long been predominant in our dominant ideology, and has represented an authentic reality for generations of Americans.  But in practice it has also often been opposed by institutionalized racial hierarchies (first slavery, then Jim Crow) and by nativist opposition to immigrants and attempts (e.g., the 19th-century "Know Nothings") to limit immigration and make America an ethno-nationalist state. While sometimes successful (e.g., the 1924 anti-immigrant legislation), such efforts have usually failed in the long-term. Even so, that thread remains a reality in American history, as we see it again playing out in current conflicts over immigration.

Finally, we have never really resolved the role of religion in our pluralistic, increasingly secular society. In 1922, G.K. Chesterton famously referred to America as " nation with the soul of a church." And, at least until recently, the U.S. had been the great exception in regard to the secularization that elsewhere has seemed so inexorably a part of modernity. As Charles Taylor has more recently observed: "the United States is rather striking in this regard. One of the earliest societies to separate Church and State, it is also the Western society with the highest statistics for religious belief and practice" [A Secular Age (Harvard U. Pr., 2007), p. 5]. Long before Taylor, even Karl Marx addressed this apparent paradox of America's civic emancipation from religion coexisting with an obviously very religious society [cf On the Jewish Question, 1843]..

Depending on who is doing the telling, accounts of American origins emphasize either the 17th-century New England Puritans and their commitment to establishing a godly "city on a hill," or the 18th-century revolutionaries and their dabbling in Deism. Of course, both are part of the story. Some of the founders - among them Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine - were Deists or at least flirted with unorthodox religious ideas. On the other hand, at least 60% of the adult white population attended church regularly in colonial America, and John Adams famously said, "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In any case, from the Second Great Awakening on, there could be no doubt that America was a religious and Christian nation, indeed for much of that time a Protestant one. This, despite the formal separation of Church and State, which, of course was constitutionally mandated only for the federal government and did not initially apply to the States.

So those who believe that the country has fundamentally changed in its very recent secularizing turn are not wrong. Nor are they wrong necessarily in lamenting that change, which correlates not just with religious loss but with secular woes as well, notably the increasingly isolation of individuals who no longer experience the community which churchgoing provides. The present situation is further complicated by the fact that, certain strains of conservative Christianity - evangelical Protestantism and integralist Catholicism - seem to be in the process of transforming themselves from authentic religious movements to primarily political identities. That means that the ostensible conflict between being a more "religious" society and being a more "secular" society may be less about faith and more about political identity and religion - or irreligion - as a tribal political marker.

All these are some of the most serious and challenging unresolved issues of America past and present, which never quite seem to go away, no matter how much they may masquerade as more explicitly political questions. Our problem, I have often observed whenever the subject of contemporary political polarization comes up, is not that we disagree about things, which is natural and inevitable, but that the particular things which we disagree about are among the most fundamental components of our common life together as a society and a nation among nations.

Monday, May 13, 2024

The Great War (Again)

This summer, it will be 110 years exactly since the seemingly almost accidental outbreak of the First World War ("The Great War"). One might wonder whether, after all this time and all the scholarship "the Great War" has generated, there is still anything left to say. But so catastrophic was that war, that we simply cannot let go of its memory. Understandably so! For not only was the war a civilizational suicide (as Pope Benedict XV rightly characterized it), not only did it destroy the old established order, it also led directly to the Second World War with all its attendant horrors, and (thanks to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which the war facilitated) also led to the Cold War, and indeed to the current configuration of Europe (in which Eastern Europe again resembles Eastern Europe post Brest-Litovsk), and the terrible war taking place at present between Russia and Ukraine.

In On a Knife Edge: How Germany Lost the First World War (tr. Anne Buckley and Caroline Summers, Cambridge University Press, 2022), University of Leeds Professor of Modern European History Holger Afflerbach re-examines the history of the Great War, primarily from the perspective of Germany, highlighting how close the conduct and outcome of that war really was (hence, "On a Knife Edge"), how it could just as well have ended in a draw if the belligerents' leaders had been able and willing to behave differently. It offers all of us who have been so shaped by the tragic outcome of that war an opportunity to reconsider our history, the better to understand the past - and perhaps also the present.

In his Introduction, the author summarizes his aim in the book: "to show that the outcome of the war was for a long period veery widely considered to be open; and that bearing this fact in mind is indispensable to understand the increasing radicalisation of the war, the insuperable obstacles in the way of a compromise peace, the harshness of the victors and the stubborn unwillingness of the vanquished to accept the result." A serious engagement with this book offers some answers to all these questions.

I am not a student of military history, and there is a lot of that in this book (along with much else), but the account never loses the forest for the trees and presents a comprehensive picture of the wartime political and diplomatic situation and of the very fallible behaviors of the belligerents' leaders, both civil and military. Although some were occasionally quite prescient, they were motivated by a variety of considerations - foreknowledge of the future unfortunately not being one of them.

That said, I, for one, was somewhat surprised by the widespread pre-war expectation that modern warfare would be unavoidably apocalyptic and the simultaneous sense that such a war needed to be won. It seems to me striking how similar that sounds to the Cold War world in which I grew up. Fortunately, nuclear deterrence functioned successfully during the Cold War. There was nothing quite comparable in 1914.

Regarding the start of the war, the author highlights the disparity between the immediate causes and the wider issues which eventually moved to the forefront. While I have never shared the view that put all the blame on Germany and assumed that none of the powers anticipated quite what would happen, I was surprised to learn how strongly the Germans believed that they were fighting a largely defensive war. It was the contradiction between this widespread German self-understanding and the military strategy Germany pursued (and how that strategy was interpreted by others) that created one of the many conundrums of the war. On the other hand, both France and Italy had "openly expansionist, nationalistic, and imperialistic agendas."

One of the most significant characteristics of the war was the long-term stalemate on the Western front, which highlighted the difference in experience between ordinary soldiers and the officer corps. Had the war been confined to Europe, stalemate might have prevailed, but, of course, the war was fought elsewhere as well, with more obviously decisive outcomes. The two sides seem also to have had different historical models in mind - the Seven Years War for the Germans, the Napoleonic War and corresponding victory for the British.

A persistent leitmotif in this book is the many missed opportunities to make peace during the course of the conflict. For example, an early, separate peace with Russia might have avoided the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and might easily have led to a draw between the Central Powers and the Western Allies. It is truly striking how many efforts were made during the course of the war to end it - both direct peace offers and offers at mediation. These included the famous peace initiative of Blessed Kaiser Karl I of Austria, the various offers of mediation from the U.S. and the Vatican, and peace initiatives from Germany itself - most famously the invitation to all the Allies to join the peace process at Brest-Litovsk.

"For most of the war, a tie seemed the almost inevitable result of the strategic situation. ... There is much to suggest that if the war had been confined within a European framework, the warring nations' respective advantages and disadvantages would in the end have cancelled one another out and enforced a compromise peace."

Unfortunately, pre-Bolshevik Russia "could not overcome its hesitation to offer a separate peace" and the Western powers did all they could to keep Russia in the war, "an enormously shortsighted strategy on the part of the Entente. and its new ally the USA, and it led Europe into catastrophe." Meanwhile Germany's bungling of its relationship with the U.S. led to American entry into the war, tipping the scale in favor of the Western Allies. This proved doubly tragic. The Allies could not win without the U.S.: "an Entente victory became reliant on the now indispensable assistance of the Americans: this meant that the endurance of any political outcomes would depend on a lasting commitment from the United Sates after the end of the war." (We know how that turned out!) The author notes that one of the ironies of the way the war concluded was that Wilson's idea of "peace without victory" became impossible precisely because of the U.S. military intervention finally tipping the scale in the Entente's favor.

Finally, regarding the internal destabilization of Germany in 1918, there was an (understandable) German misreading of Wilson's priorities. "The Germans had no way of knowing that the question of the monarchy was ultimately of secondary importance to the President and his advisors [who] might even have preferred the Kaiser to remain ... This would have soothed their growing fears that a revolution in Germany would bring the Bolsheviks to power. However, these thoughts remained concealed from the German public, as the wording of Wilson's note was hostile towards the old order." In the end, the fall of the monarchy was the fault of the Kaiser himself. Afflerbach quotes one Social Democrat to the effect that a timely abdication would have "broken the back of the republican movement." Instead, it was the Kaiser's "shameful departure" that the author believes decided the monarchy's fate.

Afflerbach argues in the end that "the patently senseless sacrifice of millions of men in a war that only ended in a draw might have been a better deterrent against a new war than the idea that such a war could be 'won'." Of course, the opposite happened, the war was "won" - patently senselessly - and immediately set the stage for the next war. That is but one of many unfortunate lessons to be learned from Allied intransigence snd German blundering in the First World War.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Jubilee Hope

One of my seminary professors used to refer to hope as the characteristically Christian virtue. This special salience of hope has been highlighted by Pope Francis in his Ascension Thursday Bull of Indiction of the forthcoming Jubilee Year, entitled Spes Non Confundit, which is a quote from Saint Paul, "Hope does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5). The "Ordinary Jubilee" of 2025 will begin with the Opening of the Holy Door at Saint Peter's on Christmas Eve and its final closing on January 6, 2026. A particular feature of this Jubilee Year will be a special celebration in every diocese on the Sunday after Christmas (December 29). A pilgrimage to the local cathedral, the Pope proposes, "can serve to symbolize the journey of hope that, illumined by the word of God, units all the faithful" [Spes Non Confundit, 7].

Hope is clearly the leitmotif of the papal bull and presumably of the observances being planned for the Holy Year. Pope Francis has explicitly identified hope as "the central message of the coming Jubilee," and calls Holy Year pilgrims traveling to Rome "pilgrims of hope" [1]. Spes Non Confundit is a contemporary call-to-action regarding the virtue of hope and also "a virtue closely linked to hope," patience. "In our fast-paced world," warns Pope Francis, "we are used to wanting everything now. We no longer have time simply to be with others; even families find it hard to get together and enjoy one another’s company. Patience has been put to flight by frenetic haste, and this has proved detrimental, since it leads to impatience, anxiety and even gratuitous violence, resulting in more unhappiness and self-centredness" [4].

The part of the Bull which I found most immediately inspiring was the section on Signs of Hope. Here, Pope Francis emphasizes the "need to recognize the immense goodness present in our world, lest we be tempted to think ourselves overwhelmed by evil and violence. The signs of the times, which include the yearning of human hearts in need of God’s saving presence, ought to become signs of hope" [7] One such sign is a desire for peace. Another is "enthusiasm for life and a readiness to share it." Here, he recognizes and warns against "the loss of the desire to transmit life," reflected in a number of countries' "alarming decline of the birthrate." (This is especially a problem, of course, in contemporary Europe, but is also increasingly in evidence here in the U.S.) In contrast, Pope Francis cites "the desire of young people to give birth to new sons and daughters as a sign of the fruitfulness of their love ensures a future for every society. This is a matter of hope: it is born of hope and it generates hope" [8-9].

The Holy Year also calls us "to be tangible signs of hope for those of our brothers and sisters who experience hardships of any kind" [10]. Among these, the Pope particularly mentions prisoners, the sick, migrants, and the elderly. Esteem for the elderly, for "their life experiences, their accumulated wisdom and the contribution that they can still make, is incumbent on the Christian community and civil society, which are called to cooperate in strengthening the covenant between generations" [14].

Providentially, the coming Holy Year coincides with a very special anniversary of significance to all Christians, the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, which first met on May 20, 325. Pope. Francis rightly recognizes Nicaea as "a milestone in the Church's history," the upcoming anniversary of which "invites Christians to join in a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the Blessed Trinity and in particular to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, 'consubstantial with the Father,'  who revealed to us that mystery of love" [17]. Nicaea also famously addressed the indue of the date of Easter. The Pope notes that 2025 will be one of those years when all Christians will celebrate Easter on the same day.

One important aspect of any Holy Year is. the Jubilee Indulgence. So Pope Francis here takes the opportunity to reflect upon death, "a painful separation from those dearest to us, [which] cannot be mitigated by empty rhetoric" [20], and God's judgementwhich brings about "a definitive encounter with the Lord." Relating this to the Jubilee Indulgence Pope Francis continues: "The evil we have done cannot remain hidden; it needs to be purified in order to enable this definitive encounter with God’s love. Here we begin to see the need of our prayers for all those who have ended their earthly pilgrimage, our solidarity in an intercession that is effective by virtue of the communion of the saints, and the shared bond that makes us one in Christ, the firstborn of all creation. The Jubilee indulgence, thanks to the power of prayer, is intended in a particular way for those who have gone before us, so that they may obtain full mercy" [22].

Indulgences remain one of those historically neuralgic issues which unnecessarily separate Christians and cause unfortunate arguments even to this day. What matters most, however, is precisely those aspects which the Pope has emphasized in the essential underlying teaching about the human need for purification from the lasting effects of sin and our solidarity in intercessory prayer. My sense is that we live surrounded by the unfortunate effects of human sinfulness - our own individual sins and those of others - and are all desperately in need of the feeling of forgiveness and experience of mercy which the Jubilee indulgence celebrates. It "is a way of discovering the unlimited nature of God's mercy," the Pope reminds us [23].

Finally, as has increasingly become customary among many modern papal pronouncements, the Bull of Indiction concludes with a meditation on Mary and hope. In her, "we see that hope is not naive optimism but a gift of grace amid the realities of life." Hence, "piety continues to invoke the Blessed Virgin as Stella Maris, a title that bespeaks the sure hope that, amid the tempests of this life, the Mother of God comes to our aid, sustains us and encourages us to persevere in hope and trust" [24].

Photo: Holy Door at Saint Peter's Basilica, which will be solemnly opened by the Pope on Christmas Eve to inaugurate the Ordinary Jubilee year 2025.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Ascension Thursday


I woke up this morning to the happy news that “Alternate Side of the Street Parking” is suspended in New York City today. It’s even better in Europe – in the Netherlands and Germany, for example, where this is still a legal public holiday! 

St. Bernard of Clairvaux [1090-1153] is supposed to have described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” But I think we can just as correctly characterize the Ascension as the continuation of that journey – now by means of his Church, through which all of us are now joined together on the same itinerary.

Belief in Jesus’ Ascension is, of course, one of the key components of our Creed, which we recite regularly - if maybe at times a bit absent-mindedly. After professing our faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we add: he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

As the words of the Creed suggest, the Ascension actually involves several things. Most obviously, it expresses the fact that the Risen Christ no longer lives among us on earth in the way that he once did. The Risen Lord lives now the new life of the future, of which his resurrection is a foretaste for us. The New Testament tells us that the Risen Christ presented himself alive to his disciples, appearing to them and speaking about the kingdom of God. After a certain period, those appearances ended. It was time to move on to the next stage in salvation history – our time, the time of the Church, the time appointed for us to Go, and make disciples of all nations.  Historically, therefore, the Ascension refers to the end of that period of the Risen Christ’s appearances to his disciples.

That being the case, one obvious question is: well, where exactly is he now? Again, the Creed contains the answer: he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Of course, as Son of God, the Divine Word, has always been with the Father. Theologically speaking, what the Ascension celebrates is that his human body (and thus our shared human nature) is now with God. 

In Jerusalem, in the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, pilgrims get to see a footprint-like depression in the rock, which purports to be the exact spot from which the Risen Lord ascended to heaven – a bit fanciful, perhaps, as if Jesus sprang upward with such force as to leave a physical impression in the rock. The footprint may well be fanciful, but it does highlight the point that it was Jesus’ human body (and thus our shared human nature) that ascended – and that is now with God.

Thus, the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. In the words of the liturgy: where he has gone, we hope to follow.

Meanwhile, in this interim between Easter and the end, though absent, he is still with us, as the Gospel says, confirming his word through accompanying signs [Mark 16:20].

Hence, his instruction to his disciples: to wait for the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father.

As individual disciples and as a Church community, we too are invited – in this interval time between Ascension and the end – to recognize and respond to the Holy Spirit’s action in each of our lives and in our life together as God’s People. 

Homily for Ascension Thursday, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, May 9, 2024.

Photo: The Ascension, watercolor ceiling painting, early 20th century, at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Lost In Ideology (The Book)


"Whenever we inhabit such siloed towers and make no effort to leave them - not even in the imagination and through dialogue - we do not understand the point of view of our neighbours who are aloft in a nearby tower of their own." So writes Political Scientist Jason Blakely near the end of his Lost In Ideology: Interpreting Modern Political Life (Agenda, 2024). Our "experience of being disconnected from an alien culture is now nearly universal in our society, as we struggle to understand not a foreign tribe but our own neighbours, fellow citizens, colleagues and family members." In Blakely's masterful analysis of contemporary ideologies, we see reflected much of our own present political experience, through the competing worldviews which map our perception of human nature and society and the purpose of politics.

Blakely's procedure in this book is to treat several major (and less major) ideological traditions, attempting in each case to achieve what sociologist Clifford Geertz called a "thick description," an account "nuanced enough to be recognized by its own adherent as faithful to it." 

An important premise of his study is that "ideological maps," as he calls them, "conjure forth and help build social reality." Thus, "ideological means and symbols" become "embedded in practices, institutions, laws, economies, regimes, and forms of self." One becomes "lost in ideology" whenever "everything in a social world reflect it back as natural." So, for example, the familiar Louis Hartz thesis linking Lockean liberalism and the American way of life is to be interpreted "as an artifact of liberal ideology itself." Thus, "where natural-rights liberals like Locke claimed to simply describe a state of nature, they in fact helped create a world in which such things as rights and liberal postulates appeared natural and commonsensical."  Likewise, for the utilitarian variation of liberal theory, such a political culture produces "people who have a utilitarian conception of their own pleasures and pains," a "self-confirming" psychological theory.

Blakely starts with classical liberalism - both in its Lockean and utilitarian formulations - as the ideology most widely associated with the American founding. He complements classical liberalism, however, with two other ideologies also associated with the U.S. from its founding. the first is the tradition of "civic republicanism" - a more anciently rooted tradition of political thought than classical liberalism, which fosters "a communal and participatory form of democracy," which "continued to inspire heterodox politics on both the left and the right." This alternative to classical liberalism was associated by Alexis de Tocqueville with Puritan New England. "Unlike natural-rights liberalism, civic republicans ascribe freedom not primarily to autonomous individuals but to the entire community and specifically cities.  Such freedom is a cooperative accomplishment and not a natural, individualistic given."

Both classical liberalism and civic republicanism have long been acknowledged and celebrated in the history of American political thought. But Blakely also calls attention to a third claimant, "White supremacist ideology," which he suggests "represents a possible rival mutation and abuse" of Enlightenment rationalism and scientism. Analogous to the construction of other ideologies, e.g., natural rights, White supremacy did not discover "the factual basis of race," but rather helped to "create it as a sociopolitical category." He highlights the historical importance of John C. Calhoun, not only for his theory of "concurrent majorities," but also as "an important source of the argument that the conflict between the North and the South was a dispute over state versus federal rights and not the abolition of slavery."

The second part of the book explores "the hyperpolarization of left and right, including progressive liberalism, right libertarianism, conservatism, fascism, socialism and communism." The first two are twentieth-century variations on classical liberalism. The left variant, progressivism, "pursues individual liberty but in a way that experiments with new practices and allows for communal cooperation and a greater role for government." This "progressive ideological map led to the construction of the New Deal welfare state as well as a political culture emphasizing social solidarity." at its extreme, it tends toward "a political ethos of ceaseless modernization" and risks assuming politics to be "developmentally linear," such that progressivism erroneously seems to progressives to be self-evident. Opposing progressive liberalism, "neoliberalism advances a species of right-wing libertarianism that asserts individual autonomy and anti-statism but targeted at the realms of economics and wealth distribution" In contrast to progressive libertarianism in the areas of traditional morality, "neoliberals assume that to survive in the competitive world of markets, individuals and families are best served by moralities or personal responsibility, frugality, sobriety and self-control." these two competing variants of liberalism are easily recognizable as mapping onto the ideologies most popularly associated with the our two political parties for much of the post-war period.

According to the normative (e.g., Louis Hartz liberal)  interpretation of American history, apart from the southern exception in its racial hierarchy, ther is no true conservative tradition of American thought. In fact, to a considerable extent American conservatism is a twentieth-century invention. To find a true conservative tradition, one must go back to Europe. Accordingly, the author considers the legacy of Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France "remains a fountainhead for nearly all forms of this ideology."Such traditionalistic conservatism favors limited government not because of liberal principles, "but because no one person can or should be trusted with a power that exceeds then infinitely." Conservatism opposes "the degradation of tradition by the modern world. Disenchantment and alienation are experienced by conservatives as products of secularization and radical innovation."  Conservatism struggles with the internal dilemma that, while hoping  for a "return or revival of a sacralized past," it has "an underlying sense in which truly premodern, traditional political belonging is no longer available even on conservatism's own terms."

I think this section is particularly relevant for Roman Catholics, because so much of historic Catholic political thinking - at least until relatively recently - resonated with this conservative tradition. In the U.S., of course, conservatism was fused by mid-20th-century thinkers like William Buckley with the very untraditional, quite unconservative "libertarianism of Wall Street elites, entrepreneurs and economists." The Cold War was the catalyst for this peculiar alliance. Absent the Cold War, the alliance has proved much more fragile, and "one way to understand twenty-first century upheavals on the American right is precisely to see that religious conservatives no longer think of capitalist markets as straightforwardly an ally to their politics."

Fascism is a particularly difficult ideology to analyze "as it appears disguised and diluted by more familiar ideological traditions." But Blakely recognizes a feature which is, I think, central fascism and fascist-like contemporary phenomena: "Fascists tell stories about a world gone catastrophically wrong," and they "believe in the need to liquidate existing institutions and leadership." Something else that is very characteristic of fascism and fascist-adjacent movements is the discarding of Judeo-Christian "compassion and mercy as signs of weakness and morbidity" and the aestheticizing of "violence, masculinity, military-ready bodies, weaponry, marshal uniforms, camouflage, and so forth." We don't have to look too far today to find these features alive and well in our midst. Blakely's treatment of MAGA ideology in relation to the fascist paradigm highlights, for example, "the injection of fascist motifs into Christianity" and it "takeover of traditional Christian imagery."

From conservatism, the book moves to socialism, which "expanded the emancipatory projects of the Enlightenment beyond liberalism and individualistic rights." Marxism, the author argues, "is liberalism's ideological alter ego. It appears a rival claimant to rational universalism touting its own competing account of liberty, equality and enlightenment." But "a cultural view of ideology makes clear that there is nothing automatic or structurally fated about revolution," and Blakely highlights how democratic socialists need "to forge alliances across different sectors of society," and how this form of socialism has "retained liberalism's emphasis on political compromise as well as respect for individual rights of assembly, speech, voting, and so on."

The third section of the book considesr newer, "liquid" ideologies "that scramble the  whole notion of a clean split between left versus right, such as nationalism, multiculturalism, feminism and ecologism." It concludes with a discussion of how to argue critically about ideologies.

Lost In Ideology is a perceptive introduction to the principal currents of contemporary political thought that should be a useful resource for anyone struggling to comprehend competing versions of political discourse, which increasingly simply talk past one another uncomprehendingly. accessible to the ordinary reader and intellectually comprehensive at the same time, it should help everyone to make sense not only of the strengths and weaknesses of his or her own ideology but also its relationship place to other ideologies currently on offer on the wider spectrum of contemporary American political thought